More than a hundred people on Jan. 10 gathered at a Muslim community center in Elk Grove to discuss last month’s incident when an unknown person reportedly harassed a high school student for being Muslim at her campus.

Sabah Elias, a 17-year-old student at Pleasant Grove High School, thanked the audience for their support at the Muslim American Society’s Community and Youth Center.

“It is this support that has helped me heal from this hateful act and has inspired me to have the courage to change this horrific act into something positive,” she told them.

Local officials such as Elk Grove City Council Member Darren Suen and Elk Grove School Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen joined a panel discussion where they addressed how students and their parents can address anti-Muslim bullying.

“What xyou did took so much courage,” Singh-Allen told Elias.

Elk Grove Police Officer Yusuf Karimi joined the panel. He noted that he has lived in Elk Grove since he was 13.

“This is something that hit home for me as a Muslim member of the community and as a Muslim member of the (police) department,” Karimi said about the bullying incident.

On Dec. 4, Elias said that a stranger wore a mask and followed her to a restroom after school. She said that the perpetrator verbally harassed her, threw a bucket of water at her and then fled the scene. Elias said that she wore a Muslim Student Association shirt when she was bullied.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, she said that her parents encouraged her to immediately notify her school’s staff about the incident. The administrators then contacted the Elk Grove police who soon began looking for the perpetrator. During the next day, Pleasant Grove’s principal, Taigan Keplinger wrote a letter that condemned the incident.

“If it weren’t for that slight push from my parents, this incident would have gone unnoticed,” Elias said.

The student noted that hundreds of students soon held a unity rally at Pleasant Grove High where they showed their support for her and they condemned bigotry.

“This event has changed my life for the better,” Elias said.

The suspect in the Dec. 4 incident remains at large. Elk Grove police spokesperson Jason Jimenez told the Citizen on Jan. 14 there have been no recent developments in the police investigation.

During his recent speech at the Muslim community center, Suen shared his childhood experiences of being bullied for being Chinese American.

“My personal decision was that I could let that eat me up and, in turn, hate as well,” he said. “But that was not the path I chose…As I moved on in life, I learned that when people got to know me, the differences melted away.”

Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly briefly spoke at the meeting before he left for a flight. He said that the Pleasant Grove High School incident shocked him.

“As a community, when we see something that is wrong, we should have no fear to stand up to it,” Ly said. “When you bleed, we all bleed. When you hurt, we all hurt. Together as a community, we can stand together to put a stop to this.”

Most of the panel discussion’s guests advised the audience to contact the school staff immediately if their children experience bigoted harassment at school.  

“Tell your children that it’s very important to report,” said Dr. Fawzia Keval, a Pre-K Education Director for the Elk Grove Unified School District. “The sooner we know, the sooner we can investigate it.”

Dustin Johnson, a civil rights attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Sacramento Valley chapter, told the attendees to contact his organization about harassment incidents since they keep track of them and they can contact local government and school officials.

“Hate comes out of ignorance,” he concluded. “It’s all of our jobs to help educate our community to make sure that everyone understands that we’re all people, we all have value.”

Singh-Allen encouraged the attendees to reach out to non-Muslims and to educate them about their religion and culture.

“To truly break down barriers, we have to break bread with those who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t worship like us,” she said. “That is where the real learning occurs.”

Elias told the Citizen after the meeting that she was pleased with what she heard that night. She mentioned that her school planned to organize a multicultural assembly in the following week.

“I’m just happy to see everyone of different cultures come together and stand united with us,” Elias said.